Office buildings may seem like workplaces where nothing can go wrong. In reality, there are several safety risks that need to be taken seriously.
Ergonomic injuries happen to people working at desks. Violence and harassment can taken place around cubicles. Air quality hazards can proliferate indoors without anyone really noticing.
And then there are the fire hazards.
While you might not think this is a significant risk (after all, there are no open flames involved in processing paperwork or giving slideshow presentations), a fire could break out at any time. In fact, FEMA states that there are approximately 16,500 fires in U.S. offices and retail stores each year.
Thankfully, with the right precautions, you can reduce the likelihood of your workplace becoming part of that statistic.
To make sure you’ve got all your bases covered, let’s run through the essential elements of an office fire safety program.
Inspect Cords and Outlets
Many office fires start off as electrical fires. Damaged cords and overloaded outlets are common culprits, so make sure to include them in your routine safety inspections.
Check all cords and cables for damage or signs of wear. If the wires are exposed or the insulating material that covers them is cracking or fraying, stop using it immediately. Replace the cords or send the device or appliance out for repair.
Power strips are a common sight in office buildings, but always make sure they are being used appropriately. To avoid creating a fire hazard, power strips should be:
- Plugged into a wall outlet (not an extension cord or another power strip)
- Used for low-power items only, like computers, electronic devices, clocks, and desk fans (but not kitchen appliances, coffee makers, or space heaters)
- Left uncovered with nothing placed on them
- Plugged in by itself (even if there’s room for two or more plugs in a wall outlet, it’s not designed to handle the energy needs of multiple power strips)
- Free of any damage
Be Smart with Paper Waste
Offices generate a lot of paper waste, and it should be disposed in a safe manner. Mainly, that means ensuring that your trash cans, wastepaper baskets, and recycling bins are not located near any heaters.
Turn Off Space Heaters When No One Is in the Room
Space heaters are relatively safe (so long as they’re not plugged into a power strip). But that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down with them.
A malfunctioning space heater can cause a fire. So can a combustible item coming to close to a running space heater (a crumbled napkin that tumbled out the top of a wastebasket, for instance).
If this is dealt with quickly, the damage will likely be minimal and crisis will be averted. If no one is around to respond to the incident, however, the fire can quickly grow out of control.
To avoid disaster, make it a policy that all employees who use a space heater must turn it off when they step away from their desk or out of their office – even if they’re only leaving for a quick break or popping out for a minute.
It’s also a good idea to send a reminder to all staff at the start of winter and on any particularly cold day, since anyone who hasn’t used their space heater in a while might be out of the habit of turning it off when they step out.
Double Check the Break Room
It’s easy to overlook the break room when conducting safety inspections, but it’s a prime location for fire hazards.
That’s because the appliances in the break room are being shared by a large number of people. As a result, they’re put through heavier use than they would be in a typical household. Often, they’ll be run back to back with no time to cool in between uses.
So, you’ll want to verify that all appliances are plugged into a dedicated outlet and not an extension cord or power strip.
Check the appliances and their cords for any signs of damage as well.
Implement a housekeeping procedure for the breakroom to ensure that each appliance is cleaned regularly. If there’s a toaster, make sure the crumb tray is emptied regularly and that nothing gets stacked on top of it.
Test Smoke Detectors Every Month
Smoke detectors are essential life-saving devices. But because they don’t need to be fussed with, we tend to forget about them until they start chirping when the battery is running low.
That’s why it’s important to schedule regular smoke detectors tests.
Test each unit at least once a month. Keep track of the expiration date for each of them as well – smoke detectors often need to replaced even if they still appear to be in tip top shape.
Some detectors with a built-in battery are designed to run for a decade or so. But if yours have a removable 9-volt battery, be sure to replace the battery in each unit at least once a year (although twice a year is preferable).
And no matter how long it’s been, if a smoke detector is chirping you will need to replace the battery immediately (or replace the entire unit if the battery is built in).
Keep Your Fire Extinguishers Up to Date
Fire extinguishers need very little maintenance, but that doesn’t mean you can leave them to collect dust.
In fact, fire extinguishers should be replaced every ten years. If you hold onto them longer than that, there’s a chance they won’t be much use if a fire breaks out – and that’s not a risk worth taking.
You should also perform a monthly check of each extinguisher. Look for signs of damage, make sure there are no obstacles or obstructions blocking access to it, and verify that the pressure gauge isn’t in the red (if it is, the extinguisher will need to be refilled or replaced).
Office buildings need at least one fire extinguisher on each floor. If that’s your current setup, consider doubling the number of extinguishers on the premises. That way, there will be one close at hand no matter where the fire breaks out, you can increase your firefighting power, and there will always be a backup extinguisher in case anything goes wrong with one of them.
Check out our free whitepaper on The Future of Health and Safety Leadership!
Make Sure Everyone Knows How to Use the Fire Extinguishers
Plenty of people go their whole lives never having to deal with an uncontrolled fire. That means you likely have several employees who have never handled an extinguisher before, and may not know how to work one.
That’s a problem you should address, because every single person in your building should know exactly what to do if they ever have to grab an extinguisher and put it to use. Every second counts when a fire is spreading – none of them should be wasted trying to figure out what to do with the pin and the nozzle.
Give all your employees training and refresher sessions on the extinguishers in the office – where they’re located, when to use them, and how to use them.
And just in case, consider posting a simple sign near each extinguisher that lists out the PASS technique:
- Pull the pin
- Aim the hose
- Squeeze the handle
- Use a sweeping motion to douse the fire
Set up a Maintenance Program for Your Sprinkler System
Like fire extinguishers, it’s easy to forget about your sprinkler system. Unless you have a dedicated facilities manager keeping an eye on things, you’ll need to have a formal program in place to make sure it doesn’t get neglected.
A very basic sprinkler maintenance program will include:
- Cleaning the sprinkler heads
- Checking the water pressure gauges and other indicators on the system
- Making sure there’s nothing that would block the water spray (like a poorly placed shelf or file cabinet)
- Bringing in a technician once a year to perform more specialized maintenance tasks
(Learn more in Debunking 6 Common Fire Sprinkler Myths)
Run Fire Drills
A fire drill is essentially a mock emergency situation. The fire alarm goes off and all staff members follow the evacuation procedure. This gives the employees an opportunity to rehearse what they should do in a real emergency, while also allowing you to pinpoint any problems with your evacuation plan.
Be sure to time the entire process and look for issues like:
- Anyone unaccounted for at the assembly point
- People gathering in the wrong area, especially if your building has multiple assembly points
- Employees with mobility issues not getting the help they need to evacuate in a timely manner
- Obstructions or blocked exits that slowed down the evacuation
- Employees attempting to re-enter the building before being given the go-ahead
Make Evacuation Routes Visible
Stressful situations have a way of making people forgetful. So, you shouldn’t rely on your employees remembering the best evacuation routes during an emergency. Instead, post signs that will help everyone find their way out safely.
The essential ones are:
- Exit signs
- Maps of the floor plan with the evacuation route clearly marked
- A muster point sign at each assembly point
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
Fires start unexpectedly and spread very quickly. If you’re not well-prepared, the results can be far more devastating.
So, take the time to review your fire safety plan. Make sure it covers everything it should, from replacing the batteries in smoke detectors to making sure the sprinkler system is functional.
It’s easy to feel safe in an office building, like nothing serious can go wrong. But it only takes one faulty cord to make you glad you took every precaution you could.
Ready to learn more? Check out our free on demand webinar on Supervisor Involvement as a Leading Indicator of Safety Performance.
And sign up for the Safeopedia Newsletter to get lots more safety info delivered straight to your inbox!